Photo courtesy of IMSA

Overachieving on bad days pivotal for No. 3 Corvette’s GTLM title push

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BRASELTON, Ga. – It takes a team to make a race car work and run properly. Drivers get a majority of the credit but the true stars work to credit the work from the behind-the-scenes personnel of engineers, strategists and crew members.

Such is the case for how Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia, in their sixth full season together as co-drivers at Corvette Racing, stand on the precipice of wrapping this year’s GT Le Mans class title in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

The Nos. 3 and 4 Corvette C7.Rs are the oldest cars in class, now into year four while each of its competitors from BMW, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche have a car in either its first or second year.

That, along with various IMSA-assessed Balance of Performance adjustments have meant the outright pace of the Corvette hasn’t quite stacked up to some of its competitors.

But what the car has lacked in pace, it’s made up for in veteran cohesion of the No. 3 group, led in large part by lead engineer/strategist Kyle Millay and car chief Danny Binks, the latter of whom might be second to program manager Doug Fehan in terms of “legend status” within the Corvette Racing crew umbrella.

Magnussen and Garcia will clinch the driver’s title provided they start the race and achieve the minimum drive time of 45 minutes. They have a 21-point lead over Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe and can score a minimum of 22 points even with a ninth and last place finish in class.

It would be the pair’s first class title since 2013, which also included three wins, including an excellent defense drive at COTA from Garcia in what was also the oldest car on the grid in the previous Corvette C6.R against the then-newer SRT Viper GTS-R and BMW Z4 GTE.

How they got there this year speaks to a mix of guile and determination, with three wins and 10 top-five finishes in class in all 10 races to date, the only car in the class to do so.

Garcia’s “King of Spain” comeback drive at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring spoke loudest among the three wins, but great calls from Millay on the box put him in that spot, as well as at the other two wins achieved this year at Circuit of The Americas and VIRginia International Raceway.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“In reality, they all boiled down to the same thing,” Millay told NBC Sports. “Sebring didn’t come our way until three hours to go, when an opportunity presented to go off strategy to the Ford guys. None of them tried it as well. We knew there we could leapfrog them at least once on another stop, then Antonio to stay ahead of them. The Ford faded away and the Porsche got closer. They got unlucky with flats.

“COTA was basically a Lambo had come to stop on track. We were P4 and pitted before the pits closed. We cycled to the lead there, being one of the few cars in the pits. We built a pretty good cushion in traffic and subsequent pit stops. The ultimate BMW wasn’t able to track us down.

“Then VIR was probably closest thing to a real shootout all year. Very good pit stops cycled us ahead of 66.We got a bit of luck with the puncture and issues for BMW. Then Ferrari took itself out of contention.”

While the wins have been good, it’s the races that haven’t gone to plan where Corvette has excelled most this year. All the top-five finishes have spoken to strategy calls gone right and executing in places where it wasn’t expected.

Two races stick out as a case in point: Lime Rock Park, where Corvette Racing nabbed its 100th win as a team last year, and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, last time out. Both races saw the No. 3 car finish fourth but in either case, it was a result that solidified the championship status.

Millay explained the former, Binks the latter.

“Lime Rock is a good example of that. We elected to push deep into the fuel window to get the best fuel and tires out there,” Millay said. “That allowed us to do two things: got us a flyer for fastest lap bonus point and two, with Lime Rock being fairly high deg for tires, we caught the BMW (Martin Tomcyzk’s BMW) but he was a bit too wide to get around! We weren’t going to touch the Porsches all weekend on pace so it was a race for third.”

On Monterey, Binks said, “As a group, our best days are the ones you win. But as a group, we’ve done a better job on races with a rough go. How do we get to the end and finish third with a fifth place car? Between the pit stops, the driver coaching and all of that with Kyle, maximizing the whole package is maybe more fulfilling.

“Last week for instance, we were fourth with a sixth or seventh place car. At one point the Ford guys were second and we were seventh. Then we were second and they were seventh! They’re over there losing their minds and I’m like, ‘What the heck? All they had to do was follow us!’ But what Kyle does, is that he’s done an amazing job to react in split-second decisions.”

Millay and fellow Corvette Racing engineer Chuck Houghton, who used to be on the No. 3 car and is now on the No. 4 car, are a pair of Pratt & Miller Engineering “racing lifers” through IMSA and GRAND-AM General Motors programs.

“I think it’s almost like an old marriage at this point!” Millay laughed.

But Millay’s learned well from Houghton as they worked on parallel programs. And he’s taken the lead under the No. 3 tent to where Binks doesn’t need to say much to him.

“I think at the beginning he asked a lot of questions. I tried to answer them with my thoughts and perspectives. But now he just runs with it,” Binks said. “He understands fuel mileage, spark maps, tire wear, computer modeling, and basically I don’t say much anymore. He runs with it now. He has the whole game in his head.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Where Binks has helped bring the team a new dimension of preparation is in its pit stop practice in-between race. The team works to do “30 to 50” stops with another car at the shop and said the team has picked up “a second to a second and a half” on stops this year – time that can’t be accounted for on the track.

Overall continuity in the group is probably the overall key to success, as the core of the No. 3 team has been together over a seven to eight year period.

“I guess the biggest thing there is as a team from mechanics to engineers, is that we’ve all been a cohesive group since 2011,” Millay said.

“We’ve been through the trenches and stuck it out through good and bad times. It takes quite a bit to get us rattled. Whether we qualify on pole or dead last, if opportunities present themselves we’ll take advantage. Even if we haven’t had pace, we’ve kept a level head. When we get the chance to make something happen we’ve been in the right spot to do it.

“We’ve had some good fortune too, with guys either getting punctures or falling off and us taking advantage, or them catching opportune yellows.

“It’s been a year where fortune has been in our favor. We’ve had good races, good execution and a bit of luck to bring it all together.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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